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tl;dr Are you aware of any dictionaries that explain word etymologies (not merely character etymologies)? Some links/references would be useful.

This is actually a collection of related questions, but I thought it would be good to keep them together.

Are there any online etymological dictionaries of Chinese? All such dictionaries I can find deal with character etymologies, which is not at all the same thing as the etymologies of the real spoken language (which can do just fine without a writing system at all, I'm sure that not more than a 100 years ago literacy rate in China was far from great).

Generally, how well do character etyomologies reflect the true etyomologies of words?

Let me give a motivating example, which made me curious about it. Yak in Mandarin is 牦牛 / 氂牛 / máo​niú, i.e. when spoken sounds just like "hairy cow" 毛牛, a very fitting description. If it weren't for the characters, one would be tempted to suspect this is not an accident. Yet if we look up the character (not word!) online, we only get "signific cluster, an ox 牜牛 that requires couxing 攵攴 from a branch 未", which suggests otherwise.

To avoid an all too common misunderstandings, I'd like to point out again that although a writing system can leave a deep mark on the oral language, a language can exist just fine without it. I am sure that a 100 years ago the literacy rate in China was far below great, yet people could use the language just fine. So again, when I say Chinese in this question, I mean spoken Chinese language (take whichever variety you prefer), not the character based writing system (I have the impression that often answers about Chinese consider written Chinese first).

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I think you pose a very bright and interesting question! I think in this particular case, to the people that were living around yaks, they knew them simply as 毛牛, to separate them from regular cattle. To other people, who had never seen a yak, 毛牛 was simple a longhaired version of cattle. Like longhorn cattle is different from plain old cattle. And then someone who knew about both yaks and longhaired cattle came along and had to differentiate the two, as he was supposed to standardize the characters for both of these. – Lars Andren Dec 22 '11 at 22:11
It is an interesting question. However, there may not be a real answer since the Chinese spoken language is difficult to trace back through time owing to the complete lack of a phonetic transcription method. This makes it extremely difficult to determine how any given word or character was pronounced in a given region at a given time (and of course the further back you go the more difficult it becomes). This also makes it difficult to research how sinitic languages interacted with other language groups in the distant past. – Bjorn Jan 14 '12 at 12:42
If you look into historical phonologies, particularly in middle to old chinese, you can see which words cluster similarly (such as 見 /kens/ and 看 /kʰaːns/). There are a lot of resources for this. Chinese is one of the best documented languages in history because of rime tables, and the historical phonologies and sounds of characters can be researched easily. This is your best resource. Some people don't look at the sound origins, and focus only on written history, but there's many resources for historical phonology. It also helps distinguish words that sound the same from those that are. – Shen Kuo May 12 at 18:58
Tell me if you want a full written answer, and I'll write one out (rather than squish into comments section) – Shen Kuo May 12 at 18:59
@Sqrtbottle Yes, that would be nice! – Szabolcs May 12 at 20:07

5 Answers 5

Chinese language doesn't work the way you might thought.

Basically, there's no such thing as etymology of words, only characters, because each char is a word. Only in last century, vernacular Chinese popularized in using 2 or more chars to denote a word. The 2-char words of vernacular chinese naturally came from the single char words and usage patterns. So, if you want to learn the history of words, basically you learn the classical chinese.

You might check out History of the Chinese language, in particular Classical Chinese.

There are lots of books on history of idioms though (e.g. Chengyu), but that's a bit different from what you mean by word.

As an analogy, let's say one might be wondering if there's a book on history of english phrases such as "fried chicken", "icy cold", "flaming hot", "black desk", "round table"...

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For this question, I am interested in the history of spoken words, not the writing system. Why a certain thing is called what it's called, and not why a certain logogram is drawn the way it's drawn. Most of the time when I ask questions like this I hit a wall where people apparently insist of implicitly interpreting "Chinese" as "Chinese written using Chinese characters", so here I excplitily clarified this. Chinese was spoken even before Chinese characters existed, right? – Szabolcs Dec 22 '11 at 20:55
Take the concrete example I mentioned: how could I find out if 牦牛 has anything to do with 毛牛? Checking what those things are called in some other Chinese languages (especially those spoken at places where 牦牛 actually live and are domesticated) would be interesting, but usually the most I can get is the pronunciations assigned to written character in Mandarin and maybe Cantonese, but that's all. – Szabolcs Dec 22 '11 at 20:56
how's this different from a analogous question in English? Say, why is cow pronounced "kou", what's the origin of people calling cows cow before writing arrived? I guess the question could be treated seriously but the answer gets too complex back to the origin of language. I am a native chinese but don't really know what 牦牛 is... (went thru google translate, it's yak, then i had to lookup wikipedia on that beast) ... so anyway i guess your question is not a practical one, and i don't know the answer. – Xah Lee Dec 26 '11 at 16:42
Yes, you are right that this question isn't different from an analogous question for English, and it is s complex one, yet there are many etymological dictionaries for English giving this kind of information. (I'd point you to the OED, but unfortunately it's not freely accessible unless you happen to be at a university that is subscribed). Languages can be and are sometimes heavily influenced by the writing system, but we must not forget that the writing system is not the same as the language, and the language was there before the writing. – Szabolcs Dec 28 '11 at 15:08
@Szabolcs: Chinese is more strongly intertwined with its writing system than many languages and thanks to the writing system it has a longer history that can be studied than many languages. But you are right than the writing system is just the map whereas the spoken language is the territory and "the map is not the territory". Etymology is possible with all languages but that doesn't mean every word has a knowable etymology. To investigate further back in time we construct proto languages via analyses of regular sound change among related languages, such as Burmese and Tibetan. – hippietrail Jan 27 '14 at 3:32

In terms of answering your first question about the websites. I usually use or Baidu's Baike. However, Baidu Baike doesn't always give etymology. If those two fail, why not try searching for it using Baidu/Google and adding 字根 (character root), 本意 (original meaning) or 名源 (origin of names/etymology) to your search.

Although it might be hard to get word etymology, like Xah Lee, that Classical Chinese were mostly one-character words. For instance, 牦牛 can said with just 牦。Thus, it might be more productive to go after character etymologies, rather than words.

Trying to answer your 牦牛 question. My Chinese is not good enough to understand all the dictionary speak, but looking at the traditional character version of 氂 on should be of some guidance.

In linking that, there might be some hints as to where it originated. Another version of the traditional character is also 犛, which refers to a black ox/yak. See the radical difference underneath?毛 vs 牛。 In fact, the traditional character, according the above zdic link in the 说文解字 section, says that the tail of the 犛牛 was called 氂. However, it further states that 㲠, which is an abbreviated version of 氂,which seems have fallen out of use, means "horse tail, long hair; thick hair". The old banners/flags had yak's tails on them. This was called 旄. In fact another meaning for 旄 is also a yak's tail. Thus, 旄 and 氂 became intertwined. 犛牛 became 旄牛.

Now here my Chinese gets a bit a dodgy. In Classical Chinese too:


As far as I can gather, what happened was that, people started calling 犛牛, 氂牛,but they wanted to stop this, due to its similar sound to 毛,but this came too late.

If anyone with better understanding of Classical Chinese, can also verify the 说文解字 entry on the ZDIC link. Heck, I had fun researching this. Got to love the depth of Chinese!

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It's not online, but it's worth checking out, as it actually does cover word etymologies:

ABC Etymological Dictionary

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Oh, this looks like it might be something very interesting! I'll definitely try to obtain a copy some way to check if it's what I'm looking for. – Szabolcs Jun 20 '12 at 13:43
I'd say this is the only real answer, as it focuses on pronunciation rather than orthography. I have this book and certainly recommend it, but keep in mind that it's an etymological dictionary of Old Chinese. It does attempt to provide some explanation for contemporary words, but that isn't its focus. – 無色受想行識 Dec 18 '14 at 6:28
I found it available on but it appeared to paywalled, and my institution was not there. Perhaps this will be helpful to others? – March Ho Dec 18 '14 at 16:17

If we take away the characters, which means we are going a long way back, prior to written records, which in terms of world history is a long time ago because Chinese writing is considerably early history (think 甲骨文). We are left with the spoken language.

In terms of a spoken language Chinese is different because it doesn't have an alphabet per se, so unlinke English where you have the opportunity to have an endless number of words Chinese uses a finite number of words. For English it could be possible to trace a word like Trampoline back through its roots where you get to a certain point where it first began arising. But with Chinese if you take a word like máo​ you are in trouble because it didn't stem from any other word or in any other culture or from any other root of a word or from any part of another word, máo​ is just máo​.

To go back to your question:

Generally, how well do character etyomologies reflect the true etymologies of words?

Looking at the example provided "an ox 牜牛 that requires couxing 攵攴 from a branch 未" at some point someone or some group decided to choose that character to apply to that "word" so understand that the character has a meaning which is what you provided above, but the word already had a meaning and a context, so you can't use the meaning of the character as a basis for the etymology or origin of the usage of the word.

This doesn't confirm or contradict that 牦牛 comes from 毛牛 as you have insinuated. The etymology of the character is useless in telling that. If you strip away the characters a 牦牛 is still a 牦牛 and will have been called such for thousands of years even if some monk decides to use a more complicated character or decides a new character is required because there may have been some other context.

Was máo​ chosen as the spoken word for 氂 because it was hairy (毛 máo​)? You can't use the characters to answer that because both máo​ (氂) and máo​ (毛) existed prior to either character. You need to go back to a time when words first started arising and the language was born and that information is lost to the ages.

If you want to go into the above further I'm afraid that's off topic as per the FAQ for the site as the scope is too large and you would require a book to cover all of the necessary information. I hope the above is sufficient in answering why such a tool does not exist.

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This answer is riddled with misunderstandings of what etymology is and can do for Chinese and other languages as well as confounding languages and writing systems. In the end it's just a bunch of intuitions. But the most interesting thing about studying languages is all the amazing ways in which they do not behave like our intuitions think they do. – hippietrail Jan 27 '14 at 3:28
@hippietrail - Happy to be proven wrong with one solid counter example? – xiaohouzi79 Jan 28 '14 at 1:11
Well I really wish I had access to the ABC Etymological Dictionary that Stumpy Joe Pete mentioned. It can be searched on Google Books but doesn't respond to hanzi searches. I'll see what I can find ... – hippietrail Jan 28 '14 at 4:18
OT, but I don't think "insinuated" is the right word to use in "This doesn't confirm or contradict that 牦牛 comes from 毛牛 as you have insinuated. " "Claimed" or "mentioned" would make more sense. – March Ho Dec 18 '14 at 16:20

Have we considered the possibility that 毛 and 牦 were pronounced differently back when the name of yaks were coined?

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